Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Somail Pirates Prepare Their New Public Relations Campaign

There are only a couple of months remaining in the current piracy season off the Horn of Africa, before the seas get rough again and the pirates take a breather ashore. And while the pirate gangs continue to attack and hijack vessels anywhere they can - including closer to India than to Somalia - they also appear to be thinking about how to bolster their image to the world, perhaps in order to use the summer months for another attempt at a media make-over.

The English-language version of Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat today reports that pirates in Puntland are planning a secret meeting shortly in Eyl in order to discuss how to better improve their image and international reputation. One anonymous Somali pirate told the daily's Khaled Mahmoud that, "The world is depicting us as terrorists and a handful of criminals. This is wrong. We have a just case and want to present it. We have no other choice but to press ahead with what we do well, which is hijacking ships."

This is another sign of the organized aspect of Somali pirate groups, of how they methodically plan to use the media and others to re-brand themselves as anything but criminals. It will likely be picked up by individuals willing to overlook the human impact on innocent mariners who are being attacked and captured by pirates. And while there are many issues that drive Somalis to taking such extreme acts as pirating vessels, there must be a broader understanding that under no circumstances can these attacks be condoned in any way. As I wrote last June, pirates operating from Somalia are not 'Robin Hoods', 'eco-warriors' or anything similar.

So when reports trickle out of the region over the summer, with sympathetic portrayals of impoverished fishermen forced to attack vessels in order to simply feed their families, keep a shaker of salt nearby, because you'll need more than a grain's worth to discern the reality.

Also, I'd like to mention that UN Goodwill Ambassador Angelina Jolie has commented on the situation in Somalia. The UN News Centre reports that the Hollywood actress is "deeply troubled by the complete and utter disregard for human life in Somalia," and has appealed, "[T]o those who carry on fighting not to shell and target civilian neighbourhoods."

I mention this not to be trite about her comments, but to point out the ongoing concerns the UN has with the situation in Somalia that Jolie has added her voice to. It's likely that many millions more will read what she has said, more than might follow the reports from the UN and other agencies. If she is able to raise greater awareness of what is going on in the Horn of Africa, it is all for the better.

By comparison, I received an note from a reader in Florida keying me to a piece written by columnist John Nash in Hernando Today (published by the Tampa Tribune), entitled "An answer to piracy off the Horn of Africa." Read it yourself, if you wish, but the gist of his commentary falls into the 'blow 'em out of the water' genre (his words, not mine). It's an ill-informed piece that talks of "sporadic reports" from a region where the U.S. and a few other nations "sometimes" confront pirates. It simplifies not only Somali piracy but also the Second World War, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, trying to draw parallels between those latter conflicts and what is currently going on off the Horn of Africa.

The effect of articles like Nash's can be as counter-productive to thinking about piracy as a media campaign from maritime criminals based in Somalia. Let the reader beware.

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